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Sepulveda Neighbors Think Co-Pilot Is Hero

September 24, 1989|HECTOR TOBAR | Times Staff Writer

The co-pilot of the USAir jetliner that crashed during an aborted takeoff at La Guardia Airport in New York and killed two passengers last week is a lifelong Sepulveda resident and former Boy Scout who received his first pilot's license at age 16, relatives and friends said.

Constantine Kleissas, 29, graduated from James Monroe High School in Sepulveda in 1977. The high school yearbook lists him as "Gus." John Kleissas, a retired engineer for the Aerospace Corp. in El Segundo, described his son as an "extremely competent, extremely capable pilot."

"He wanted to be a pilot since he was 6 or 7 years old," the elder Kleissas said, adding that he bought his son a small plane, a Cessna 172, when the teen-ager received his pilot's license.

"I think he acquired his love for flight because of my profession," he said. "I love tinkering with planes, and I guess Constantine picked up on that."

Kleissas' son was at the helm of the Boeing 737 Wednesday night when it slid off the runway into the East River after an aborted takeoff. Two women aboard the plane were killed.

Licenses Suspended

On Friday, the Federal Aviation Administration suspended the licenses of Kleissas and the jetliner's pilot. Although the pilot, Michael Martin, was a veteran, Kleissas had only flown the plane during takeoff on training flights.

Despite questions raised about Constantine Kleissas' role in the crash, residents of Calahan Street in Sepulveda said they were certain that the co-pilot--called "Connie" by his neighbors--had acted heroically after the crash.

"I've known Connie since before he was born," said neighbor Michaeline Madsen, a 34-year resident of Sepulveda. "If I had my choice, he'd be the hero."

Madsen said Connie and other family members shared a love for cars and airplanes. Two cars and a pickup truck were parked in front of the Kleissas family's attractive wood-frame house Friday. The family left Friday for the East Coast to see their son, neighbors said.

Another neighbor, Katharine Rush, recalled that John Kleissas was for many years a scoutmaster and that his son was an avid Boy Scout. "He's a very responsible young man," Rush said of Constantine. "We told him we'd like to fly with him."

John Kleissas said his son was formerly a pilot for a West Coast subsidiary of American Airlines and was hired by USAir three months ago.

Kleissas said he feared for his son's safety when he saw the first television news bulletin about the airplane crash. "I knew my son was flying that route and once I heard the name of the airline--that just confirmed my fears," he said.

Survived Crash

Those fears subsided when Constantine called about 9:45 p.m. Wednesday to say that he had survived the crash. "He sounded like he was in shock, but he seemed to be in control of his emotions," Kleissas said.

The elder Kleissas said he felt that his son acted courageously after the crash. "We heard that he was one of the last ones out of the water because he was trying to rescue and calm down the rest of the passengers," he said. "We are very proud of him."

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